July 4th commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the American thirteen colonies uniting to form a new country. While the holiday honors our nation’s historical triumphs, it has since become a celebration of America’s present as much as it’s past. Although the America of today may be drastically different from the land that our founders fought for, it remains a land of freedom and opportunity that continues to draw immigrants from across the globe. The film I’ll be reviewing this week, An American Tail, chronicles the struggles and triumphs of the immigrant experience while highlighting the ways in which immigrants from around the world have shaped the United States’ into the nation that we know today. While the film may have been written for children, this tale of immigrant mice arriving in a new country in search of a better life will resonate with audiences of all ages.
|Everywhere around the world they're coming to America|
The film begins in 1880’s czarist Russia as the Mousekewitz family celebrate Hanukkah. The celebration is cut short, however, when Cossacks arrive and attack the family’s village in one of the czar’s anti-Semitic pogroms. While the Cossacks terrorize the villagers, the film parallels the violence with a virtually identical attack against the village’s mice by the Cossack’s cats. While the Mousekewitzes escape unharmed, their home is destroyed and they continue to face oppression under the cats. To avoid further violence and persecution, the family set out for the United States where they are told there are no cats and the streets are paved with cheese. Their arrival in America proves bittersweet, however, after middle child Fievel falls overboard during their journey. Miraculously, Fievel survives by taking shelter in an empty bottle and manages to wash ashore in New York City just as his family enters Ellis Island. The film then chronicles his efforts to make sense of his new home as he struggles to reunite with his family, even as they cope with life in a new country and continue to mourn him.
The film expertly captures the experiences of 19th century immigrants in a way that both informs and entertains young audiences. For example, the film maintains its historical context by relating some of the varied reasons that people left Europe for America through catchy songs and the child-friendly metaphor of mice as immigrants and cats as forces of oppression. The film similarly explores such historical issues as Tammany Hall corruption and child labor, but maintains viewer interest by remaining firmly focused upon how these issues directly impact Fieval and his family. The film’s portrayal of a diverse cast of characters working towards common goals captures the spirit of America’s melting-pot while teaching lessons in tolerance and the importance of teamwork. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the way in which it refuses to talk down to its audience and presents the struggles and triumphs of immigrants in America in equal measure, which makes the character’s ultimate successes more satisfying. Thus, An American Tail uses familiar elements of children’s films to relate a historical story that will both entertain and enlighten young audiences.
|The mice ain't gonna take it, no they ain't gonna take it|
The film brings together breathtaking animation, enjoyable songs, and engaging voice acting to bring its unique version of 1880’s Europe and America to life. The animation is lovely without ever overwhelming the story and creates a striking balance between realism and cartoonishness. One of the visual highlights is the way in which the mouse world is shown as part of the world at large, and the greater world is shown from a mouse’s perspective. The film also utilizes several memorable songs including the tear-inducing Oscar nominated ballad, “Somewhere Out There” and the rousing “There are No Cats in America”. The voice acting is uniformly excellent with actors portraying a wide variety of characters of varying nationalities with nuance, enthusiasm, and charm.
Part historical drama and part musical adventure An American Tail is a film that truly has something to offer the entire family. Through its tapestry of song, action, and animation the film brings the bustling streets of a changing America to life. It’s portrayal of immigration in all its grittiness and glory lends an all too human heart to this tale of mice on the move. For the young and young at heart alike An American Tail is an apt reminder of what it means to be an American.
|Happy Independence Day!|